The Purple One’s 1987 opus remains a singular achievement, where Prince had the ambition and the songs to match through every statement and stylistic curveball
In the tradition of double albums like Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Prince’s Sign “O” The Times, which turns 35 today, was an artistic tour de force and a highly effective sampler platter of what an artist does well.
It wasn’t planned that way. Prince originally had two projects in mind. Dream Factory was going to be a Prince & The Revolution album where the Revolution members had greater writing and performing input. Camille (which is scheduled to finally get a release from Third Man Records some time this year) was to feature Prince performing under an alter ego, with his pitch altered to be androgynously feminine and his name to be left off the label.
Growing dissatisfaction between Prince and the Revolution led to the band breaking up after the Parade tour in 1986. So the separate albums were scuttled and Prince set about making a triple album called Crystal Ball with songs from the abandoned albums, along with some new material.
That’s where Warner Brothers stepped in, balking at a triple album. So Prince trimmed it down by one-third, resequencing it with the addition of the new title track.
Prince was already on a hot run — Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain in succession. Around the World in a Day and Parade had their high points. But when Sign “O” The Times hit, it was a dizzying smorgasbord of his career to that point.
One of Prince’s strengths was in how he took all his various influences and combined them into a musical sensibility that felt like Prince, even when the influences were really easy to spot.
Take the opening title track, where the obvious antecedent is Sly and the Family Stone, circa “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
If Prince wasn’t descending into cocaine-fueled paranoia like Stone, the through line from the turmoil of the Vietnam era to the dark undercurrents of the Yuppified ’80s was a straight one. Over a spare groove built around a Fairlight synthesizer loop, two people die of AIDS overseas and armed gangs on crack commit murder in the streets. And that’s just the first verse.
A comparatively spare track compared to Prince’s more recent work at the time — the beat, combined with the anguished social commentary made it a hit. That’s even though parts of the social commentary came off as dated and off the mark as a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” anti-drug PSA (the references to “reefer” and “horse”).
VIDEO: Prince “Sign ‘O’ The Times”
Making it clear this wasn’t going to be an ’80s riff on What’s Going On, Prince switches gears to the joyous, shifting turns of “Play in the Sunshine,” which sounds at times like it would have fit right in on Around the World in a Day until it takes off in different directions.
Then comes those words — “Shut up already! Damn!” and it’s time for the most spot-the-influence song on the album — “Housequake.”
It’s a James Brown rip to its core, to the point where you’re surprised it doesn’t have a “Part 1” in the title, which it might have had Prince released it as a single.
Although Soul Brother No. 1 never pitched his voice up for a vocal like this (the song dated back to the Camille project). And he also had a full band, unlike Prince at this point.
Like another influence — Wonder — Prince was skilled at multiple instruments. By casting most of the the Revolution aside, he took over much of the playing on Sign “O” The Times. The result was often the work of a one-man band, produced by that very man (with help from engineer Susan Rogers).
So if Prince wanted to fine somebody $20 for a missed cue or muffed note on the classic funk jam, he was going to have to fine himself.
And folks, we’re only three songs in, giving you just a bit of an idea of just how disinclined Prince was to stay in one place on Sign “O” The Times.
The album is defiantly untidy, but it’s not sloppy. The consideration Prince put into each individual track ensured that the album would flow, even if he didn’t always signal before a style change from track to track.
Prince, like John and Wonder, was a big star by the time he chose to do a wide-ranging double album, across multiple media when you count the success of the Purple Rain movie.
But their commonality is the confidence in what they were doing — John with his co-writer, producer and band building to one of their career peaks; Prince, working more solo, with nothing to prove, but plenty to show.
There’s Prince, the slow jam balladeer with songs seemingly designated for compilation album commericals featuring a couple, a bottle of wine and a roaring fire. One of the album’s rare co-writes (with singer/actor Carole Davis), it’s delightfully old-school, it’s swaying ’60s soul showcasing just how good of a singer he was. It’s ready-made to be a live centerpiece with enough built in spots for brief pauses for audience reaction that one can picture D’Angelo taking notes.
“Adore” moves things up into the ’70s, with Prince swapping the croon of “Slow Love” for a killer falsetto. It’s a lush way to end the album, really making one wish for that bottle of wine and the fire.
AUDIO: Prince “The Cross”
Duality between the carnal and the spiritual and how they mingled was one of the ongoing themes of Prince’s career. It’s something he wrestled with even before he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001. After that point, there were certain songs where he either changed lyrics or chose not to perform them entirely.
On the one hand here, you have “Hot Thing,” in which the romance of “Adore” and “Slow Love” are cast aside for a night at the club.
This is Prince in lust-filled come-on mode, its synth-driven groove speaking more effectively than the lyrics (“Hot thing, barely 21. Hot thing, looking for big fun”).
Apocalyptic imagery certainly wasn’t unfamilar to even casual fans, even if they’d missed the meaning of the lyrics in the dance jam of “1999”, the fast-paced rhythm & rock of “Let’s Go Crazy” and majesty of that crooned falsetto and blisteringly emotional guitar solo of “Purple Rain.”
There’s no macking on a 21-year-old in “The Cross” from the 27-year-old Mr. Nelson. This is gospel, an offer to join before the apocalypse, in straight-ahead rock form. It starts slowly — quiet psychedelia with almost Indian sounds, subtle strumming.
But then it begins to build. Halfway through, it explodes. The drums come in, quietly insistent at first, then harder and louder. The quieter strumming gives way as Prince has a fuzzbox and he’s going to use it. The soothing assurance in his voice steps aside for potentially vocal cord-shredding urgency. Perhaps the most straight-ahead rock song in Prince’s career, its earthbound guitar-and-drums keeping the song from being as preachy as it would be otherwise.
VIDEO: Prince feat. Sheena Easton “U Got The Look”
The Camille voice appears on a non-Camille track in the hit “U Got the Look”, in which the woman gets to revel in the carnality as much as Prince does. Duet partner Sheena Easton gets the lead the first time that “Let’s get 2 rammin” line in the chorus appears.
And lest one think the lyrics are all funky cheese, there’s that verse where Prince at first insists that his intended paramour must have taken an hour to do her makeup, only to say, “Closin’ time, ugly lights, everybody’s inspected/But you are a natural beauty unaffected/Did I say an hour? My face is red, I stand corrected.”
The winning “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is a rarity in the hit pop realm song — the “No, I don’t think so” song when it comes to affairs of lust. It’s not operating from a sense of judgment or fear of the Cross, but because the man in the song knows that as much fun as the night might be, the woman pursuing him is likely to realize she wanted more than just a rebound lay when she wakes up in the morning.
It wasn’t always that way, as in the original version of the song, dating back to 1979, Prince caves in the final chorus, adding “…but I’ll try, yeah, I’ll sure as hell try.”
The new wave power pop feel of the original demo goes widescale by 1987. The chorus hook made the trip intact, this time with Prince’s own melodic backing vocals, some killer guitar and an insistent, omnipresent hi-hat keeping it moving, especially in the bluesy vamping that starts four minutes in and keeps going until the bursting return of the chorus, wordlessly, for the final 30 seconds.
There are also character sketches– the low-key, quirky “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”, for one, which is not about the New Yorker, the Algonquin Hotel or the Hollywood Blacklist.
“Starfish and Coffee” was inspired by a childhood friend of co-writer Susannah Melvoin. Prince kept some details like the names and wisely changed others (apparently the childhood friend used to say “starfish and peepee”). Showing off the Beatles and Joni Mitchell as influences, it’s appealingly charming in its lightness of tone in a way that the more self-conscious pastiche moments on Around the World in a Day weren’t.
Prince also dug back into the demo pile for “Strange Relationship,” which dated back to 1983. Its lyrics paint a creepy, abusive picture, from the jealousy to the shifting of blame to the threat of violence at a relationship’s end. It’s rather unsettling, especially coming after the vulnerability in the preceeding track.
“If I Was Your Girlfriend” is arrestingly weird, even to this day. That androgynous Camille vocal, perhaps intended as a way for Prince to express things he hadn’t in music under his own name, plays with expectations of gender in tandem with the lyrics. Cami-er, Prince, opens himself up over slinky, spare backing.
For all its hinted-at gender fluidity, at its core, its about gender role fluidity, about trying to bridge the gap of mistrust (often quite rightly earned) and move past traditional expectations. Prince sounds exasperated, but not angry, trying to find the way to bridge that gap. He never gets an answer. It’s weirdly romantic with an intriguing conversational tone and also a commentary on not being able to articulate the right way.
Sure, Prince starts out yearning for a platonic intimacy element, but can’t keep from going carnal, asking, “And would you, would you let me kiss you there/You know down there where it counts/I’ll do it so good I swear I’ll drink every ounce.”
VIDEO: Prince “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
It’s one of the album’s high points and, both sadly and unsurprisingly, the only one of its singles to flop. ’80s audiences wanted their gender fluidity, perceived or otherwise, safe and non-threatening.
The Revolution even makes an appearance with “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” recorded in Paris towards the end of the Parade tour.
Prince starts with the letter “P.” Purple does as well. So does “petty.” Speaking of which, Prince took the live recording and does various overdubs to mask or push the contributions of multiple departed band members down in the mix. The song still succeeds as a joyous farewell to this combination of players anyway. It’s a relentless, tight, unrepentantly funky party jam.
Like Songs in the Key of Life, Sign “O” The Times was emphatic exclamation point at the end of a big run, and arguably the best one, for Prince in his career. He had plenty of good material to write and some pretty good albums left in him — 1992’s The Love Symbol Album and 1995’s Gold Experience, to name two.
But Sign “O” The Times remains a singular achievement, where Prince had the ambition and the songs to match through every statement and stylistic curveball.
Prince later had a single off the Love Symbol album called “My Name is Prince.”
Yet in 1987, he didn’t have to say who he was. Sign “O” The Times said it with style, funk, soul and authority.